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Test-Drive: Birds of Prey

David Akoubian harnesses the versatility of the Tamron 18-400mm VC zoom lens to photograph his feathered subjects.

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By Jenn Gidman
Images by David Akoubian

The Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway in Holland, Michigan, offers plenty of eye candy for photographers, from the hundreds of plant and animal species found in its marshes, meadows, and forests to its De Witt Birds of Prey Center, which houses hawks, owls, eagles, and other birds that have been injured and can't return to their natural habitats. It was here where David Akoubian decided to test-drive the new Tamron 18-400mm VC lens, reproducing the conditions in which a visitor to a local zoo or nature preserve might find themselves.

"I think of the 18-400 as the perfect zoo lens, since at a zoo (as opposed to in the wild), you're working in the constraints of the space you're in plus, versus worrying about keeping a safe working distance from your subject, as well as keeping to park regulations that limit how close you can actually get to a bison or bear," David explains. For this assignment, David wanted to show the capabilities of the 18-400mm and its versatility by limiting his own movement and perspective as he photographed the birds of prey.

© David Akoubian

"I decided that I would stand about 5 feet from my subject and utilize the 18-400's zoom for both wider and tighter shots," he says. "It's similar to someone visiting a zoo, where you often don't have any control over the parameters of where you're standing, or on how the animal is going to act. All I wanted to do was try to find a clean background (no poles, signs, etc.) behind where the bird was, or was going to be, then position myself within that 5-foot metric I'd set for myself. I wanted to see what I could capture going from 18mm all the way up to that 400mm end."

© David Akoubian

David took his photos between 4 p.m. and sunset. "The birds were present at three stations, and we could visit any of the stations," he noted. "When I knew one bird was leaving a station and another bird was "flying in", I would position myself in the spot near where I thought that next bird would settle down, so I could keep that consistent distance between myself and the birds throughout all of my photos."

© David Akoubian

Because these images were mostly shot handheld, David made sure to tap into the 18-400's Vibration Compensation (VC) technology to make sure the resulting images were sharp. "On some of the photos I did use a monopod at slower speeds, but I even kept the VC on for those photos, as the monopod was simply there to assist me as I used slower exposure times," he says.

© David Akoubian

To compose his bird shots, David alternated between filling the frame and also creating full-body photos, experimenting with perspective and how much of the environment to include. "As nature photographers, we often learn that making our subject big within the frame can result in a compelling photo," he says. "But creating an environmental portrait of the bird is important, too. Even though these birds are captive, their environments are as close to their native ones as possible, so I try to incorporate that environment without taking the focus off the bird—usually by blurring out the background just enough so that you can see where the bird is, but also so it's not distracting. I'll try to position the bird's eye so it's looking into the frame, which makes it more inviting to the viewer. You don't want the bird staring at something way out of the frame and also leading your own eye out."

© David Akoubian

To photograph a barred owl, David took advantage of the 18-400's maximum magnification ratio of 1:2.9 and minimum object distance of 17.7 inches to create a macro-type image. "This was the one image I moved closer than the 5-foot parameter I'd been using," he says. "I was only about 3 feet away from the owl, which was nested in a pine tree. The owl was missing its right eye, so I wanted to shoot it from its left side and make sure it felt comfortable with my presence."

© David Akoubian

David wanted to capture the owl in its natural environment, but also with a focus on the bird itself. "As a birder, I'm always looking for textures and patterns," he says. "Because I was able to get so close in this case, you can see the texture of each and every feather near that bird's eye, as well as each eyelash. You can even see the grain and texture of the eyeball itself. I found the macro capabilities of the 18-400 to offer an intense level of sharpness, ensuring I could show off every detail of this beautiful bird."

There was one thing that surprised David during his weekend with the birds of prey. "Many people there who were mirrorless camera shooters realized that my one lens and body were actually smaller and lighter than their smaller cameras and the lenses they needed to equal what I was shooting," he says. "That 18-400 is a powerhouse."

To see more of David Akoubian's work, go to www.bearwoodsphotography.com.

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